Either it’s free or it’s not

I used to get a lot of hate mail — a lot. I know, it’s hard to believe. I’m such a nice person. The high point in the wave of defamation was about a year ago, and I made a point of not mentioning it publicly because mean-spirited rejoinders don’t solve any problems. They just create more ill will.

Things have subsided and now it’s rare that anyone writes to me to exercise their vocabulary of epithets. Ninety-nine percent of the malice revolved around a tiny change in one particular package in one particular distro. One default flag could be reversed, and it would provide a tiny measure of safety for inexperienced users.

It wasn’t a patch or a code change or even a feature removal. The flag existed, it could be reversed, the documentation allowed for it, and even encouraged using it. And any number of more “advanced” distributions applied the flag by default, mostly because it was a rather sane point to follow.

Eventually the change was adopted, the package was updated, and as a result now, if you try to delete your root directory in Ubuntu, it will ask you if you’re really sure that’s what you want to do.

That was over two years ago.

So you can imagine my relative surprise when a rather acerbic blog (with a considerable following) aimed at lampooning a particular segment of Linux users took offense at the reversal … more than a year after it had already been done and forgotten. That’s where all the meanness came from, as irate readers arrived on my doorstep, vented profanities, and then wandered off to sour someone else’s day. Late to the party, but no less angry for it.

I won’t pretend to speak for the people who opposed that change, but I can guess that the rationale was, “You are new and inexperienced, and therefore unable to contribute. This is the way things have always been, and your idea isn’t helping anything or anyone. Don’t interfere in things you obviously don’t understand or respect.”

No one told me I couldn’t use Linux, only that I couldn’t change it to suit my beliefs. I was free to try it and use it and endorse it, but if my own perspective differed from the originators, I should keep my mouth shut and learn to live with things as they had been created, decades ago.

The funny thing is, most of the people who wrote to me — or left comments, or attacked me personally — would have exploded in an aneurysm of fury if I had suggested the freedom attached to using Linux be restricted. Or if I had suggested the licensure be rewritten. Or if I wanted a particular demographic to be denied access to Linux. They couldn’t see that they were doing just that, to me.

You cannot release something into the wild, allow people to adjust or use it as they see fit, then chastise them if they decide they prefer things arranged differently from how they were originally drawn up. It’s either free, or it’s not, and you don’t get to decide for someone else how they run things. If you need to control the way other people use their computers, then you need to start from scratch and license your work appropriately. Microsoft and Apple might be able to give you tips on how to get started.

Even small clauses, like those famous no-military-use restrictions, grate me like sand in my mouth. Extending your restriction downstream through other users and developers is an attempt to control the people who might otherwise find it useful.

Either it’s free or it’s not, and that includes differences of philosophy. That might make me sound like Stallman, but I’ve been on the receiving end of a torrent of acrimony, and all because I happened to think things should be slightly different.

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10 Responses to “Either it’s free or it’s not”


  1. 1 Richard Querin 2010/04/25 at 11:23 AM

    It’s a common mistake to assume Freedom always means ‘do as you please’. Or maybe it’s a misnomer in the case of Free Software. In fact I don’t think it makes you sound like Stallman. After all he designed the GPL to enshrine “Free Software” by placing restrictions on the way it’s developed and disseminated.

    Freedom is always a contextual thing. In the case of Free Software, the GPL is designed to ensure and promote the four freedoms, not to simply let people do as they please. For instance, I am restricted from developing with GPL’d source code and not sharing those developments.

    I happen to like what the GPL is aiming to achieve. Its mechanisms are not all that dissimilar from Apple or Microsoft derived software licenses, but of course the goal is completely different. Still, in each case restrictions are applied.

    I think it’s unfortunate so many in the Libre software community seem to think something must be either free or not. It is clearly not that simple.

    • 2 Bryan 2010/04/25 at 1:11 PM

      With all due respect, I have to disagree. The GPL, I believe, inhibits the freedom of the code it promotes. By requiring that derivative code be also licensed under the GPL (If I remember correctly, GPL3 requires you to release all derivatives under GPL3 as well) You’re inhibiting what I can do with the code and how I can use that code. I understand the want to keep everything ‘free’, but I’m of the opinion that the freedom of a piece of software can be compromised at anytime by ill-meaning individuals and prosecution for those individuals is hard to come by, I would imagine.

      In all honesty, it’s my opinion that a BSD / MIT / X license is much preferred to a GPL one, though I don’t write off GPL code purely because it’s GPL. I will, however, use BSD licensed software where I can. For instance, I prefer tmux over screen, postgreSQL over MySQL, and DWM over…any other window manager.

      It’s all about choice, but I still believe that the GPL is simply infectious with probable cause.

      • 3 Anonymous 2010/04/28 at 11:48 PM

        “It’s a common mistake to assume Freedom always means ‘do as you please’. ”

        Freedom always comes with restrictions if it is just and equal, because your freedom to do something often implies a restriction or cost for me. If your freedom to do something implies a cost to myself, whose freedom becomes more important?

        The GPL was designed to ensure that all the users (as well as contributors) have a common set of freedoms, but those translate into restrictions as well. The freedom that the GPL was designed to ensure the freedom of the user at the expense of the freedom of the software developer/publisher. In this case, the GPL is the written embodiment of the law that states the users’ freedom is more important that the developers’ freedom.

        If you want true freedom, then you must live away from everybody. If you live in a society, then each individual must relinquish certain freedoms in order for the whole of society to live upstanding and peaceful lives.

  2. 4 Luca 2010/04/25 at 11:36 AM

    I guess this is the same as the uproar over changing the (default) UI in 10.04.

  3. 5 Armor Nick 2010/04/25 at 3:28 PM

    I agree with you 100 %. Like some said above, the only restrictions the GPL places on the code is that you have to release derivatives under the GPL too. But there’s nothing in there about what you can do with the code.

    In fact:
    the freedom to use the software for any purpose,
    !!the freedom to change the software to suit your needs,
    the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors, and
    the freedom to share the changes you make.

    Ubuntu is clearly a distribution for newer users. Newer users need protection from themselves. As such, it suits their needs to have something like the rm flag enabled.

    But I’ve always found linux zealots (and windows zealots) silly people. It’s just software, not religion.

    • 6 Lyyx 2010/04/25 at 4:18 PM

      Seconding a fellow Belgian. The GPL standards being dragged in above only matter tangentially; the ‘free’ being spoken of is in design philosophy, not terms of use. The wealth of choice is an integral feature of Linux, and the people trying to ‘defend’ their own Truths merely advocate some paternalistic stripping of your own freedom. That their dreaded feature is nothing but a safety catch worries me, though.

  4. 7 gullars 2010/04/25 at 4:28 PM

    I agree with you here, why is this something that should merit hatred?
    And there is so many things about ubuntu that would be the bad, the bloat, the attitude of the leaders. But to start a holy war over such a change I really don’t get. That is just silly.

  5. 8 evidex 2010/04/25 at 9:30 PM

    I spent a while reading back over some of the comments left, and plenty of them are just ridiculous. It’s strange that people would distribute an OS as being free to alter, and then complain that some one altered it. The bug you reported actually saved me, after some rather nasty advice when I was a noob.

    It bewilders me, it really does, especially that people actually came face to face to vent to you.

    Some people just do not have anything decent to do with their time. Fair dues to you for sticking to you guns, and keeping your place.

    I don’t know if this type of behaviour still occurs, but I hope it doesn’t. It gives Ubuntu a bad name. I personally spend quite some time on Ubuntu Forums, doing my best to help out, and receiving plenty in return. I have to say, that bar one, quickly removed user’s advice, I have only positive things to say about the help I’ve received over at the forums :)

  6. 9 cianoconnor 2010/04/26 at 2:23 AM

    Jesus, what a bunch of children. For what its worth, not one of the extremely experienced Unix admins (30+ years in a few cases) I’ve worked with would leave rm ‘/’ unpatched. Its not worth the risk.


  1. 1 Well said « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2010/08/03 at 9:10 AM

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